Ask The Salty Waitress: What Are The Rules Of Sending Back Dishes?

Dear Salty: As someone who worked as a server in college, I know restaurants aim for 100 percent customer satisfaction. We'd always stress to customers that if for any reason they're not happy with their dish, speak up and we'll do what we can to remedy it.

My question, though, is about where that line is. I remember once an older customer insisting on sending a soup back because it was too hot—not spicy hot, but temperature hot! Do you have any general guidelines for when it's appropriate to send a dish back?

Thanks, Jen


In a just world, there is a clear line as to when it's appropriate to send a dish back. If that vegan dish the customer ordered contains chicken broth? That's justified. If a steak is too cold, or a jambalaya too spicy? That's fine too. What if a customer just thinks the dish doesn't taste good? That line is a bit hazier, but still the answer is probably yes. (A soup too hot to the touch? Just the thought of that straightens my curlers.)

We have to remember we're in the service and hospitality industry, which above all else, means we're in service of the customer—even if it means biting our tongue at times. It's different from, say, working in real estate, where both parties are expected to compromise. But when customers have plenty of dining choices and chooses to go through our restaurant door, you bet your ass we're grateful for their patronage. And we try to make that gratefulness obvious. This means that unless it's for an outrageously stupid reason (and those situations are few and far between), restaurants should always err on the side of taking back a rejected dish and making a new one to the customer's specification. Remember, restaurants are playing the long game here.

There is, however, one point that you didn't bring up that gets in Salty's salty craw. It's the matter of how many bites a customer should be allowed to take before it's unreasonable for them to send the dish back. I remember one Grade-A yob who ordered our steak 'n' eggs special, plowed through about three-quarters of the sirloin, then waved ol' Salty over with a shit-eatin'-grin—"Yoohoo! See this piece here? It's overcooked like a rubber tire. Cook me a new steak, please." Hooboy, the daggers I stared into that walking turd could slice through diamonds. Thankfully, that's more the exception than the rule.

In my unsanctioned rulebook, I say three bites is enough for you to gauge whether to send the dish back for subjective reasons. (By subjective, I mean too spicy, too salty, etc.) For undercooked meat, where it's normal to order it at different levels of doneness (beef, fish, duck), it's an easy matter for the kitchen to throw it back on the pan and bring it up to temp. But for a meat like chicken or pork that requires a certain level of doneness—say you ordered fried chicken and discover it's raw halfway through—then not only will we make you a new batch stat, no questions asked, but we're taking that order off your bill.

The short answer to your question is restaurants will almost always accept a dish sent back and fire a new order for you ASAP. We're here to make customers happy and to encourage them to come back and dine with us again. But the customer should also be reasonable. Sending a pot pie back because the crust is too thick, or a bouillabaisse for one unopened mussel seems... unreasonable. As always, communication is the key, as is letting us know as soon as possible—not because it's a pain for us to redo, but more to make the customer's meal as seamless as possible, so they're not sitting there twiddling their thumbs while the rest of the table merrily scarfs down.

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